Obama guarantees reversal of Bush's pro-life stem cell policy

WASHINGTON (BP)--President Obama has promised Democratic lawmakers he will issue an executive order reversing President Bush's ban on federal funds for stem cell research that destroys human embryos.

"I guarantee you that we will sign an executive order for stem cells," the president told Democrats in the House of Representatives attending a retreat Feb. 5 in Williamsburg, Va. The Washington Times reported Obama's comments, citing three sources in the closed-door meeting who asked to remain anonymous.

While Obama's support for government funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is well known, a question had developed since his Jan. 20 inauguration about whether he would actually use an executive order. There seemed to be some indication he might decline that method of rescinding the Bush policy and allow Congress to deal with the issue.

At the Democratic retreat, Obama endorsed congressional action as well, telling the representatives a legislative measure is needed to prevent a future president from reversing the policy again, according to The Times. Obama said he would coordinate the timing of his order's release with Congress.

"President Obama's promise is extremely disappointing but not surprising," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Once again, as in the case of overturning the Mexico City Policy, President Obama's action forces Americans who find such research both barbaric and repugnant to subsidize it with their tax money.

"Reduced to its basics, killing the tiniest human beings in their embryonic stage of development for the possible medical benefits of older and more developed human beings is quite simply high-tech cannibalism in which we devour our own young for the sole purpose of treating other human beings who are merely fortunate enough to be older and able to defend themselves in a way the tiniest human beings are not," Land told Baptist Press.

Stem cells are the body's master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, providing hope for the development of cures for a variety of diseases and other ailments.

Bush issued an executive order in August 2001 barring the use of federal funds in stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos. Extracting stem cells from an embryo destroys the donor.

Congress twice approved legislation to overturn Bush's policy, but the president vetoed both bills. Efforts to override the vetoes failed.

The ESCR funding ban is undergirded by a 1996 federal law that prohibits federal funds from being used for the creation of human embryos for research, as well as experimentation that destroys or threatens the health or life of embryos. That measure, known as the Dickey Amendment, has been subject to various interpretations, said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. A legal challenge could ensue if Obama rescinds the ESCR funding ban, with supporters of the Bush policy arguing in court the Obama order violates the Dickey Amendment, Johnson said.

The Dickey Amendment is part of the annual spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, so Congress has to approve it each year for it to remain in effect. The measure is named after its sponsor, former Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas.

Not only is ESCR lethal for the non-voluntary donor, but embryonic stem cells have yet to provide treatments for any diseases in human beings. They also have been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources -- such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -- does not harm donors and has nearly universal support. Such research has produced treatments for at least 73 human ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research.

In the last 15 months especially, scientists have discovered ways of converting non-embryonic stem cells into cells that have nearly the identical properties of embryonic ones.

On Jan. 23, Obama issued an executive order overturning the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits international family planning organizations from receiving federal funds unless they agree not to perform or counsel for abortion, or lobby in order to liberalize the pro-life policies of foreign governments.

President Reagan originally established the Mexico City Policy in 1984, when it was announced at a conference in Mexico City. The policy remained in force until 1993, when President Clinton rescinded it on his second full day in the White House. President Bush reinstated it exactly eight years later.


Tom Strode is Baptist Press Washington bureau chief.

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